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All Politics Isn’t Local, Alas

Today is election day here in Wichita, where the citizenry will exercise its democratic right to choose a mayor and an at-large school board member. These odd-numbered year elections are usually dull and low turnout affairs around here, but this time the mayoral race has been so ruthlessly fought it has attracted so much local media attention that even The Washington Post took notice, so turnout is expected to be somewhat higher than the norm.
The two candidates on the ballot are incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell and state Representative Brandon Whipple, but there’s also a write-in campaign by local businessman Lyndy Wells, who was barely edged by Whipple in the primary, and he’s well-funded enough to tout his numerous endorsements from locally prominent Republicans and Democrats. Given the low turnout and scant public opinion polling the local media can afford to do, not to mention the write-in campaign and all the other complications that have come up, we have no idea how it will turn out.
One of those complicating issues is an attack ad that ran on Facebook and YouTube, alleging that Whipple had sexually harassed a female intern at the Kansas statehouse. The ad, urging “Stop Brandon Whipple,” cited reporting by The Kansas City Star about sexual harassment of interns at the statehouse, but the stories made clear that Republicans were being accused of the misdeeds, and Whipple is a Democrat. Whipple immediately threatened to sue whoever ran the ad for slander, but at first it was unclear who who it was.
The local paper was able to link it to a New Mexico company called Protect Wichita’s Girls LLC, but state officials were unable to provide any further information. Eventually the local paper tracked down one of the voice actresses on the tape, who swore she’d been told it was a generic anti-sexual harassment and was embarrassed to find out she’d been part of such a shameless smear, which led to a 21-year-old named Matthew Colborn who had filmed the video in an office shared by Republican state Rep. Michael Capps and Wichita city councilman James Clendenin. Capps denied having anything to do with it, but the local Republican establishment has nonetheless been calling for his resignation, and now Capps is accusing the county Republican chairman of approving the ad.
Wichita’s local elections are officially non-partisan affairs, with no Ds or Rs next to the candidates’ names, but of course everyone knows who the Democrats and Republicans are. Usually it makes no difference to the civic-minded sorts who show up at the polls even on odd-numbered years, as local governance is pretty much a boringly non-ideological matter of paving the streets and keeping precious water flowing and maintaining some semblance of law and order and adding the occasional aesthetic flourishes to the city. These days both parties regard all politics at levels as blood sport, though, and in this battle the Republicans seem to have hoist themselves on their own petard, to borrow a phrase from the Bard.
Which was entirely unnecessary, as far as we’re concerned, because this could have been another pleasantly dull local election. Wichita’s a small enough town that we know Mayor Longwell and his charming wife, and he doesn’t seem a bad fellow, and some good things have happened in the city since he took office, but we’ll never forgive him for tearing down our beloved old Depression-era ballpark and proudly unaffiliated Wichita Wingnuts to build a fancy new stadium with some suspicious private investors snatching up the nearby lots in lovably un-gentrified Delano at a bargain price, and there are questions about his friendly relationship with the company that got the big-bucks contract to keep the water flowing. Whipple’s undeniably a Democrat, but so far as we can tell he’s not much of an ideologue, and he promises to be as transparent as possible while paving the streets and updating the pipes and all the rest of the wearisome business of running Wichita. Wells is a successful businessman with a long record of involvement with local causes, which seems to turn off a lot of the local Democrats, but we liked his business-as-usual approach enough that we voted for him in the primary over Whipple.
Whipple won the run-off by a hundred votes or so, and this time around we’ll be voting for him. Business as usual has become very chummy between public officials and private interests, and although public-private relationships have often worked out well for the city at large we think it best that the citizenry know in advance what’s going on. The low turnout in city elections has always meant that city and school district employees are overrepresented in the electorate, leading to a City Hall and school board more liberal than this very conservative city at large, so we’ve usually voted for the civic-minded businessman types and religious warriors to resist their worst impulses, and for the most part the city has progressed on this godforsaken patch pf prairie, at least to the point we don’t feel any pressing need to live elsewhere.
We know a lot of reasonable Democrats around here who basically share our views on paved roads and clean water and some semblance of law and order and all the rest of our local chores, and the necessity of carrying them out in the most transparent and stringently ethical way, and for now we’ll trust them more than the local branch of our once Grand Old Party.
In any case, we’ll expect Wichita to progress fitfully along as it always has, from its humble origins as an Indian trading post to its current top-50 status as a hub of high-tech aviation and agriculture and fast food franchising, with some surprisingly lovely neighborhoods and better-than-you’d-expect arts and music and theater scenes, and a lot of people well worth befriending.
We’d like to think that the rest of the country will work things out as amicably as Wichita probably will today, but we have our nagging worries. New media and constant us-against-them rhetoric from talk radio and the presidential podium have addled the brains of Republicans at all levels of government, the damned Democrats are as bad as ever, and it’s all irreconcilably ideological. Both parties talk about infrastructure and clean water and law and order and civil liberties and all that jazz, but most of it is delegated to the lowest levels of government, where the turnout is usually low, and mostly the national parties are concerned about whose side wins.
At this point in our grumpy old manhood we don’t much give a damn for either side, as we feel free to say in this age of frank and vulgar political discourse, and are more concerned about the roads and water and law and order and such. We also worry about the national debt and America’s standing as the leader of the free world those worrisome declines in business investment and the manufacturing index, as well as the suspicious deals that seem to have been made on the national and international level, but that’s ultimately up to the rest of the country.
For now there’s one of the city’s electronic traffic messages just up the street from us telling us we can’t turn left on 13th, even though there’s no apparent road work going on, and we’ve been turning left there for more than 25 years, dagnabbit, so that’s temporarily a more personal issue to our admittedly self-interested selves. At least we’ll get to gripe about to the next mayor we inevitably run into him around this still very small town of ours.
Nice to know, too, that what’s left of the once-grand Wichita Eagle where toiled for 25 years is still doing some good work on emaciated resources, and that what’s left of the rest of the local media is also keeping the citizenry riled up. There’s hope that turnout will reach a full 10 percent of the electorate here in Wichita, and that a free press will also inform the nation.

— Bud Norman

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Democracy at the Local Level

Tuesday was an election day here in Wichita, with the primary for mayor and three city council seats and an at-large seat on the school board at stake, so of course we did our civic duty and drove several blocks to a church up in North Riverside to cast our vote. Voting is a long ingrained habit of ours, even in these low turnout contests, and we are creatures of habit.
There’s always a certain satisfaction in exercising one’s franchise, but it’s changed over the years. When we were kids our elementary school was a voting place, and the Monday before every election day we’d get to go into the booths with the red handle that closed the curtains and click on the levers to cast our mock ballots for the candidates our parents had endorsed. Back then no one doubted the election results, and everyone accepted them no matter how it turned out, and there was something very Norman Rockwell about the process.
Nowadays you need a driver’s license or some other sort of photographic identification that they scan through a machine, which is fine by us, but we notice that doesn’t reassure those who are convinced illegal immigrants are deciding the elections. They also hand you a couple of computer printouts you run through a couple of computers in order to vote, which strikes us as rather convoluted, and we notice it also hasn’t done much to bolster public faith in the electoral process. The same anti-immigrant Secretary of State who got the photo ID requirement enacted resisted a system with a paper trail that could counter any foreign computerized meddling in Kansas elections, and we can’t blame our Democratic friends for being suspicious about that.
Another thing that’s changed is the media landscape, which is not as useful as it used to be in making our choices. The local newspaper is down to about 20 newsroom employees, the three local television statements are similarly understaffed and preoccupied with car wrecks and local crimes, and it’s hard to find any information about the various candidates. They still do the thumbnail sketches where the candidates get to say all the same things about good government and honest dealing, but that’s about it. Somehow we were unaware of the race for the at-large seat on the school board, which we care about even though we’re long out of school and have no kids, and were embarrassed to cast no vote in the race.
We follow local politics as best we can, though, and made our choice accordingly. One of the mayoral candidates ran ads on the talk radio stations that described a platform of repairing the city’s sidewalks and making Wichita a sanctuary city for the unborn, but we’ve not noticed the sidewalks in a state of disrepair and wonder how fetuses might find their way to sanctuary here, and he flier that showed him next to an embarrassed-looking President Donald Trump was another reason to write him off. Several of the candidates were the usual kooks who always run for local office, and only the incumbent and a couple of challengers seemed like serious people with relevant credentials.
Incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell has generally done a good job, and Wichita being such a small town and ourselves being so well connected ¬†we personally know him to be a nice enough guy with a very charming wife, but he tore down our beloved Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and ran off our beloved Wichita Wingnuts to build a shiny new ballpark and attract a Major League-affiliated team, in a deal that gave some businessman or another some recently hot Delano property for a dollar a lot, and there’s no forgiving that. The two non-kook challengers were Lyndy Wells and Brandon Whipple, both businessmen with long lists of the boards and commissions of local agencies and charities they’ve served on. A former city councilwoman we always thought too liberal for our tastes but whose honesty we never doubted knocked on our door to to make a pitch for Wells, our very conservative businessman friend “Hatman” Jack Kellogg, who has lots of dealings with the city government, also endorsed Wells, and when a couple of trusted ¬†realtor friends made the same recommendation we settled on Wells.
Not that we had anything against Whipple, who wound up slightly behind Longwell in the race for the two slots in November’s run-off. We can’t be sure that Whipple was a Wingnuts fan, or that he’ll be any less likely than the usual Wichita politician to go knocking down perfectly good buildings to erect something more shiny or new, but except in the unlikely case that what’s left of the local media comes up with some pretty serious dirt on him he’ll probably get our vote. If Longwell wins we figure Wichita could do a lot worst, as so many big cities seem to do.
So long as we get to vote, we’ll retain an optimistic feeling. While voting we ran into a longtime friend who lives down the street who had come to vote and brought his soon-to-be-third-grade son along to demonstrate what civic-minded citizens do on election day, and when they accepted a cookie and an “I voted” sticker from the nice lady at the door he thanked her for volunteering her time to democracy and had his son do the same, and that also gave us a hopeful feeling.
Here’s hoping the kid winds up with the best possible person serving in the at-large seat on the school board, no thanks to us or the local media.

— Bud Norman